Converting Yourself to Christianity

A few days ago I wrote on the Verbum blog about St. Francis de Sales and his teachings drawing me closer to Christ throughout 2013. While ongoing sanctification is a major underpinning to what I wrote and how I analyzed myself, I didn’t feel it necessary to explain or defend ongoing sanctification. The same is true for this blog post. Whether you’re Catholic and you adhere to the doctrine of ongoing sanctification or you’re a Protestant interested in a practical biblical theology for the practice of holiness, I want to offer my thoughts on today’s Gospel reading. Check it out before reading further—Mark 4:1-20—it’s a long passage, but this analysis assumes you’ve read it through.

In the middle of this passage, before Jesus offers an explanation for those whom the parable has mystified, Jesus has this to say:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”

What?

This passage is a little mystifying. Jesus speaks in parables and concludes by saying that he does it on purpose to obfuscate the understanding of those outside of the Kingdom of God. But there’s a lot more here than just mystery and revelation. Jesus explains the parables to his twelve apostles, enlightening them of the meaning of the parable while leaving the crowds in the dark. Does God create intentional outcasts of his kingdom?

I don’t believe this is the case. Interestingly, the parable is self-referential. This is where the analysis of the passage gets weird—I’m getting the feeling of déja vù as I write this, and am tempted to drop an Inception joke. You see, not only is the understanding of the parable itself withheld from the masses of Jesus followers, but the parable itself is an explanation of why the followers don’t understand it in the first place.

Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all of the parables?

We often think of the parable of the sower as being a parable of conversion. Jesus explains that the seed that is sown is, essentially, the Gospel, or the Word. The various states of soil represent the circumstances surrounding the people who receive the Gospel message, and for whatever reason, be it thorns, rocks, or weeds, the Gospel message doesn’t last long in that person’s heart. It is a parable of conversion; but much more than that, it is a parable of understanding. You see, when Jesus asks the question, “How will you understand all of the parables?” the scope of this parable’s importance becomes paramount.

Now, suppose we make a parable out of this parable. (Have patience with me—I was an English major.) Imagine this parable is the full Gospel—it is the Word of God, the Good News, and the light to the nations. How can you fully understand it? Do you understand God, his methods, ways, purposes, and plans? This parable is a very apt microcosm for the entire Gospel of Mark, and even for the whole New Testament. Numerous commentators before me (Protestant and Catholic) are in agreement that understanding of God comes first from God—for how can we understand any aspect of him unless he allows us to? Therefore, and these same commentators agree, the understanding of this parable is given to us by God—just as we here see Jesus imparting understanding of the parable to his Twelve. But do the Twelve fully understand it? I suspect not. I suspect that our knowledge-based understanding of God and our practice-based holiness go hand-in-hand.

Remember what I said earlier about the parable being a parable of conversion? The seed is sown into different types of soil, where it either takes root or doesn’t. Now, apply this to the principle of ongoing sanctification. We are constantly re-converting ourselves to God—repenting, returning, and redirecting our actions, words, and thoughts to God. The seed—God’s Word, or, more appropriately here, the Gospel and God’s Truth—is being sown into us each day. If you’re Catholic, then this applies even more literally—we have daily readings from the Gospels every day of the year! Whether you’re aware of it or not, God’s truth—his love—is constantly bombarding your heart, looking to take root.

Now that you understand the parable, this brings the most pertinent question before us:

What type of soil are you giving to God’s word? This Great Sower is endlessly reaching out to you. Is your mind open to him? Are you willing to let his love take root? Are you even aware of the state of your soil?

I’ve been thinking lately about the state of the soil where God’s Gospel message is planted upon me, and it shames me to admit that this soil is pretty dry. Filled with entertainment, food, friends, internet, beer, general laziness, and the freedom to do whatever the hell I want, I’m not reacting with conversion or repentance when God’s Word is sown upon me. And trust me, it’s sown through my Christian friends, through the Catholic Church’s daily readings, through prayer, the Mass, and through theology books, but the evidence of a shallow root is quite clear. I’m not able to focus or give my attention for lengthy periods of time. I’m unable to adhere to any kind of discipline or routine. I’ve become weak, lazy, and selfish.

But I know the causes of poor soil. In my case, it’s not for lack of engagement with my Church, community, prayer, or Scripture reading. These things are various forms of the seed, and tossing more seed upon the soil isn’t going to improve the soil. Rather, I need to prepare my mind and body for the reception of God’s Word. My attention span and ability to study have been shot by quick and easy entertainment, fast food, and my ability to control many aspects of my life—who I spend time with, where I go, what I do. I need to prepare myself to convert back to him.

I need to get rid of the distractions. Eliminate the laziness. It is in circumstances like these that various Catholic and secular disciplines can really make the difference. I’m talking about routine exercise, avoidance of YouTube and Facebook, regular reading (and I mean real reading—books, poems, novels, essays, theology, anything longer than a blog post), and controlled diets (not a “diet” as in, eating less food, but controlling how much goes in to you, when it goes in, and what is the contents of your sustenance). What kind of music do you listen to? What kind of games do you play and how do they affect your attitude and heart? How do the people you spend time with affect the ways you think and process reality and affect your behavior and attempt at holiness?

It is for this reason why we Catholics fast from meat on Fridays. Why we sacrifice something significant from our lives during Lent. Why penance is not in any measure a form of atonement, but preventative care. Penance prepares us to receive Christ again in the future, when he calls us again, and we decide whether we’re converting back to him.

Are you prepared to convert to Christ’s call? God is sowing his Word to you even now.

What kind of soil have you prepared for him?

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Don’t be far!

Here’s a song I started back in 2009 kind of experimenting with electronic and dissonant sounds. At the time, only one intelligible lyric I had written was

I love / cuz I have to love

I re-worked it to relate to my thoughts on fabricating ecstasy; the song is written from the vantage point of someone who is desperate for some kind of emotion, especially in the context of musical praise. Lyrics below.

Caught up into the skies

Friends to my left and to my right

We’re reaching up to catch ambrosia rain

Fall, come and drown us out

Our noise, let it shake and move the ground

Cuz if you don’t hear us, we’re going to burn

Don’t be far from me

Don’t abandon me

Make me feel alright

Or I could die tonight

Thought that I was alright

But you told me I need to stay up all night

If I was going to prove my love

I love, cuz I have to love

Embrace, cuz I’m forced into your arms

Don’t let me down, come down, and make me high

Fabricating Ecstasy

On my drive up to Bellingham today, I was nostalgically listening to David Crowder. Listening to his song “You are my joy,” I was struck by the line,

            Love’s taken over me / and so I propose letting myself go / I am letting myself go

I looked at my console with the same irritated look I would give if my CD was skipping and asked out loud, “Why?”

In that moment my mind was instantly flooded with all of the anxiety and psychological tension that existed in the evangelical framework I was raised in.

Growing up, I spent most of my spiritual and intellectual energy attempting to have an encounter with God. The idea was never very concrete—I was taught from a young age the way we know God loves us (or, more precisely, that we are saved) was through “experiencing God.”

This kind of logic flows naturally from the Protestant idea of Sola Fide, and Max Weber even wrote an entire book about it. The only difference between the Weberian thesis of the Protestant work ethic and the modern evangelical idea of salvation by experience is that our spiritual currency has changed.

In the 16th century, after the structure of an outward, sacramental salvation came crumbling to the ground, people needed to look elsewhere for confirmation of their salvation. If not through baptism, if not through confession, how would one know that one is really saved? One easy way to know one’s eternal destiny was to simply look at one’s pocket book.

It’s not that the rich were the elect, but rather that the elect naturally became rich. The logic here is so simple as to easily miss it: If God had chosen you, wouldn’t He provide for you? If you were Elect, wouldn’t you be favored? In light of this idea, early Protestants, especially the English Puritans and French Huguenots worked very hard.

They worked hard because they wanted security, and they wanted security because they wanted proof of their salvation. The question of course wasn’t weather or not Faith alone saved you, but whether or not you really had Faith. Because there was no more structure to determine what concrete actions were Holy or not, the sacramental chasm left by Catholicism was filled with secular work.

So much for Weber’s thesis. These days, there’s an acute awareness and skepticism of any kind of “false gospel” that preaches health and wealth (though these kinds of movements are still very much alive.) But it’s not that the early Protestants were into a Prosperity Gospel. In fact, just the opposite: They didn’t want God to give them health and wealth, they wanted God to give them salvation. What was lacking, as we’ve seen, was a means to know whether or not salvation was granted. Fast-forward to the present in an industrialized, wealthy global economy, and we can begin to see how the signs and symbols of salvation have shifted: The modern Christian no longer tends to his outward-secular work, (for even the non-believers do this!) but instead looks to his inward-spiritual state.

There’s a lot of theology that leads up to this shift, but the shift can be traced very easily. Look at the American revivalist movements, the first and second Great Awakening—something new was happening. Tent revivals were filled with “Holy Rollers,” the fire of tongues began to catch and spread like wildfire (in America, anyway.) People rejected the “old Puritanical ways” and took up a new mode of soteriological gnosis: experiencing God. 

Crowder’s refrain of “letting go” is a rally call. It is a call to awaken the lazy spiritual worker and get him to start working towards an experience with God. Instead of working hard to secure a prosperous business life, the evangelical works hard to secure the elusive (and amorphous) encounter with God. 

I’m reminded of similar refrains from worship songs when I was younger: Lines like, “And I’ll become even more undignified than this” (meaning I’ll “let myself go” or “get wild” in the presence of God) and an endless repertoire of lyrics begging for God to “fill us up” so we could simply “catch a glimpse” because all we really needed was “one moment” in order to be “satisfied”.

We truly were hungry, desperate for God, but not in any measurable or rational way. We were at pains to know that God really loved us, and, unfortunately, we had been taught that the only way to really know for sure was if we felt something.

And so we took the work of salvation into our own hands; we were fabricating ecstasy. From altar calls to all-night worship sessions, we squinted our eyes and, like one in pain, lifted our arms up to the heavens in hopes of the elusive encounter

The great mystics of the Counter-Reformation, while holding moments of spiritual ecstasy dear, never attempted to create or contain them. St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Lisieux, Ignatius of Loyola—all understood that God was still present—if not more present—in the seasons of absence and dryness. We cannot let ourselves go, because we cannot free ourselves.